1000 Days In A Small Place Under The Tuscan Sun
April 7, 2015 2:50 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to be spending almost two months in Tuscany, and I want reading material. But I'm picky. Book recommendations for the traveling jaded literary snob?

No Dan Brown.

Not very interested in the "Rich expats buy ramshackle house in the countryside" genre of Tuscany literature. I will pick up something like this if it's unforgettably outstanding, but I read Under The Tuscan Sun in high school, and IDK, meh, I guess. I would love to read something that turns this genre on its head or that is a more self-aware take on this trope, though.

Classics of the Western Canon are fine. A Room With A View and Where Angels Fear To Tread are on my radar already, and apparently Goethe wrote about traveling in Tuscany, which seems cool. I'd definitely like more recommendations in this vein.

Travelogues are cool, as are memoirs of interesting Tuscany-adjacent people, biography, etc.

History, Art History, and Cultural Studies nonfiction recommendations would also be great. I'm a total sucker for those "microhistory of this one specific thing" type books, a la Salt or At Home.

Really I'm up for anything that isn't either Dan Brown or Frances Mayes.
posted by Sara C. to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Are you interested in mysteries? Michele Giuttari's have been translated into English.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:57 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I read The Agony and The Ecstasy while I was in Florence, and it helped give me a deeper sense of the history behind the development of the city and area. It might seem kind of dated now with its treatment of Michelangelo's sexuality, but is a pretty good book.
posted by skewed at 2:57 PM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

The Architecture of Michelangelo by Ackerman is an amazing book that made me look at Florence (and buildings in general) in a new way. Highly, highly recommended.

I really love Valerie Martin's writing; Italian Fever was not my absolute favorite of her novels, but it's certainly worth reading.
posted by jaguar at 3:11 PM on April 7, 2015

The autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, the 16th-century artist, is pretty entertaining (murder, narrow escape from death penalty, illegitimate children, art, etc).

Galileo's Daughter is also pretty interesting.
posted by three_red_balloons at 3:37 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, Goethe's Italian Journey could be something to consider.
(Johann Gottfried Herder took Goethe as an example and traveled to Italy too, but his Italienreise is full of complaints about his traveling company and the inferior standards of the Italian roads and whatnot, so I'd go look at Goethe first.)

I also remember reading his drama Götz von Berlichingen while downing cheap Chianti on the camping site of San Gimignano, and that was actually an unexpectedly all-round great experience, even though Götz has nothing at all to do with Tuscany.

Oh and Hermann Hesse's diaries from his Italian journeys (German edition here).

Other than that...The Decameron perhaps?

You could also get an edition of Mozart's letters and read about his Italian experiences (he was still a kid).
posted by Namlit at 3:44 PM on April 7, 2015

Historical Fiction recommendations:

The Passion Dream Book by Whitney Otto, which looks like it's out of print but available in used copies.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Durant. It sounds like a cheesy romance novel from the description, but it's extremely well written.
posted by jaguar at 3:58 PM on April 7, 2015

Best answer: Not Tuscany-specific (the author lives in the Veneto) but I highly recommend Tim Parks - specifically his books An Italian Education, Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo and Italian Neighbors.

Cellini's autobiography is definitely fun and worth a read, ditto The Agony and the Ecstasy. How about Machiavelli's The Prince and Vasari's Lives of the Artists? The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici is a good beginning intro to the Medici family. A Room with a View is lovely and free on Project Gutenberg.
posted by PussKillian at 4:14 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, yes, seconding Tim Parks! I thought there was a good English-speaking expat writing about Italy, but I was blanking on his name.
posted by jaguar at 4:22 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can't think of any of Umberto Eco's books that are specifically located in Tuscany, but I picked up one of his books when traveling in Italy and it was just right for how I felt. I happened to be reading Baudolino on that trip, but I like most parts of most of his novels.

Seconding the Decameron if you haven't read it, purely for playing a game of "find the origin of the literary trope and/or Canterbury Tale," and Galileo's Daughter, which scratched my "oddly specific nonfiction" genre itch.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:13 PM on April 7, 2015

Best answer: Roman more than Tuscan, but they had dealings with the Florentines as well: G. J. Meyers' The Borgias. Biography that reads like high octane fiction. So so good.

Seconding the Agony & the Ecstasy and Sarah Dunant's books, especially the Birth of Venus.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:20 PM on April 7, 2015

Best answer: So this one is Roman historical fiction, not Tuscan, but it's about a Medici pope, soooo maybe you'll accept it? It's been years since I read it, but I recall being horrified-ly entertained, and since you're looking for something a lot meatier than Mayes or Brown, I'll point you to it. Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:34 PM on April 7, 2015

The Monster of Florence is really interesting.
posted by BibiRose at 8:16 PM on April 7, 2015

What about Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan quartet has taken Italy by storm and everyone wants to know who wrote it (its a pen name).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:24 PM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am REALLY loving Simon Barnes's 10 Million Aliens right now. Also enjoying How We Got to Now, though have not read much yet. Ditto The Riddle of the Labyrinth. Will the Circle be Unbroken? is great so far, albeit not the most uplifting read. Someone also recommended The Great Reformer to me (about the current pope). I seem to remember If Walls Could Talk being somewhat similar to At Home, and very good. The Fruit Hunters is also great.
posted by bookworm4125 at 8:53 PM on April 7, 2015

I recommended Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter in this thread and recommend it again here to you.
posted by kbar1 at 10:51 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The quintessential florentine literature is by Dante Alighieri.
posted by meijusa at 12:17 AM on April 8, 2015

A snarky bit of wish fulfillment from an outcast failed British painter and conman? (Pope) Hadrian the Seventh, Fr. William Rolfe. "The previous English pontiff was Hadrian the Fourth. The present English pontiff is Hadrian the Seventh. It pleases us; and so, by Our own impulse, We command."

A fascinating biographical detective story detailing who he was and what he did? The Quest for Corvo, A J Symonds, a hilarious and heartbreaking portrait of the strange Frederick Rolfe, self-appointed Baron Corvo, an artist, writer, and frustrated aspirant to the priesthood with a bottomless talent for self-destruction.
posted by glasseyes at 2:41 AM on April 8, 2015

I enjoyed reading both The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie and The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga. For non-fiction, I liked Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King.

Beautiful Ruins (as other have mentioned) is also good.
posted by Shadow Boxer at 6:24 AM on April 8, 2015

I can't remember where exactly in Italy she was, but Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir Blood, Bones & Butter is a lot about the Italian family she married into, her Old-Worldy in-laws, spending a chunk of time in Italy every year and cooking and cleaning house. I really loved it. I might re-read it after thinking about it just now.
posted by witchen at 8:08 AM on April 8, 2015

Seconding Elena Ferrante. The narrator grows up in Naples, but moves to Tuscany for university. Terrifically good writing, including a lot of social history in Italy in the postwar period.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 8:51 AM on April 9, 2015

Best answer: Seconding Tim Parks, who is smart and terrifically funny, and Jess Walter. And Donna Leon's sophisticated mysteries set in Venice.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 9:46 AM on April 9, 2015

Came for Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, stayed for The Decameron.
posted by MrBobinski at 5:06 PM on April 9, 2015

Response by poster: Marked all the recs for public domain stuff as best answers, because I can cram my tablet full of Project Gutenberg versions.

Also, while I didn't end up buying any of Tim Parks' books, everyone's recommendation of him led me down a rabbit hole of nonfiction about the various influential families of the Italian Renaissance, as I couldn't decide whether to get Medici Money or any of a number of books about the Borgias, the Sforzas, etc. Ended up with The Tigress Of Forli, about Caterina Sforza De'Medici, by Elizabeth Lev. I'm not letting myself dig into it until the plane, at least, but it looks exciting and I'm a sucker for "why isn't there a movie about THIS amazing woman from history????" type stuff.

And I might end up grabbing the Medici Money thing, too, if I can't resist and end up reading this one before my trip.
posted by Sara C. at 4:51 PM on April 12, 2015

Sara C., let me know if you'd like my copy of Medici Money. I've read it a few times and probably won't reread it - it's not one of the several Parks' I reread fairly regularly.
posted by PussKillian at 6:40 PM on April 12, 2015

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